Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book 47: Maggie O'Farrell's fine The Hand That First Held Mine

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell (book 47)

Both the writing and storytelling in Maggie O'Farrell's powerful The Hand That First Held Mine contain a rare elegance and skill. Authors often fall prey to overwriting, which distracts from the beauty of the narrative, but not O'Farrell who writes with a clarity and a certainty that are a joy from the opening sentence to the final one.

The novel is made up of two stories that ultimately converge, although initially it is difficult to see how this can be.

When we first meet Lexie Sinclair, in the mid '50s, she is in her early twenties and soon to flee her parent's home in Devon for the arms of her one true love in London. While in London, Lexie also learns a craft and later becomes a talented and enterprising journalist.

Elina Vilkuna, whose story is set in the present day, is a young Finnish artist married to a London film editor. When we first meet Elina she is recovering from a near fatal delivery of a baby boy.

Motherhood unites Lexie and Elina. O'Farrell writes poetically of the almost inexplicable love that wells up, like water from some spring deep in the earth, after the birth of a child. And, she writes with equal power of the drudgery -- the endless chores, the feeding, the crying, the cajoling.

In an article for her newspaper, Lexie writes: "We change shape . . . we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair. We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, a shred of beloved fabric, a plastic doll. We lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective. Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies. They breathe, they eat, they crawl and -- look! -- they walk, they begin to speak to us."

Motherhood, too, unites them in an unexpected way.

O'Farrell stitches the women's two stories together neatly with a slow, but steady hand. A painting is discovered in a bedroom. A name emerges that ties one character to another. And then the read becomes aware of a variation on another name.

As the novel's end approaches, it is clear that from Lexie's standpoint something horrific has taken place, but what and how only unfolds in the final pages.

There is great sadness here, but joy too; enough for a reader to smile through tears.


One final note on this exquisite book. Take a look at the dust jacket from England that is pictured above and then find the jacket from an American edition. The American edition stinks. The cover of the English edition first attracted me to this book and, to me, perfectly captures the essence of the novel.

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